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Individual Learning Accounts

9. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West): What progress she is making towards replacing ILAs and expanding the availability of these vehicles by the end of 2002. [40727]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (John Healey): There will be a successor ILA-style scheme, which will build on the lessons, good and bad, that we have learned from the ILA

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programme. It will take into account the findings of the current wide consultation exercise which are due in early April. I regret that I cannot, therefore, confirm when we will launch the successor scheme.

Mr. Swayne: My postbag is full of letters from a great number of people of very modest means who have made significant sacrifices, both of a financial nature and in the way in which they organise their lives, and who are now up the creek without a paddle. Is it true that the Learning and Skills Council warned Ministers of the possibilities for fraud in the ILA scheme and that those warnings were ignored? Will that lesson be taken on board for the new scheme, and how on earth will the Minister regain the confidence of those people who have suffered so badly in the shambles that this business has become?

John Healey: The first question on the Order Paper was about the successor scheme. The Learning and Skills Council came into operation on 1 April 2001, and we launched the ILA scheme in September and October 2000, so the answer to the hon. Gentleman's first question is no, and many other interests were consulted in the run-up to the design of the scheme. I am conscious of the fact that our decision to close the ILA scheme, which was regrettable and inevitable, has left many learners unable to take up the opportunities that existed under that scheme. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that 85 per cent. of those who used their ILA said that it opened up new options for them in training and learning, and 91 per cent. said that the learning met or exceeded their expectations.


The Solicitor-General was asked—

Sex Abuse Cases

33. Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): What steps she is taking to ensure that there is consistency of approach between each Crown Prosecution Service area in respect of the (a) scrutiny and (b) credibility checks undertaken by the staff of the CPS in relation to sex abuse cases. [40755]

The Solicitor-General (Ms Harriet Harman): All case files received by the CPS are individually reviewed in accordance with the code for Crown prosecutors. The code is there to ensure fairness and consistency in case work decision making. It applies to cases involving sex abuse as it does to any other sort of case. Crown prosecutors are trained in how to apply the code, they are supervised in their work and they are inspected by Her Majesty's CPS inspectorate.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: The Minister will be aware of my significant interest in the activities of the CPS which arises from my role as chairman of the committee for abuse investigations. Although I appreciate her comments about the consistency of procedures, my concern is whether there is any evidence that the procedures have not only efficient results but just and efficacious outcomes.

The Solicitor-General: As my hon. Friend says, I am well aware of her long-standing interest in the prosecution

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of sex offences involving children in care homes. I am aware also that in response to her work in the field, the Home Affairs Committee is to set up an investigation into these issues. Certainly the CPS wants fair outcomes as well as efficient investigations. I urge her to take up the invitation of John Holt, the chief Crown prosecutor in her area, Merseyside, to talk to some of the front-line prosecutors involved in investigating and prosecuting these very difficult cases. She will be reassured by the level-headed approach that they take to these difficult, sensitive issues.

Serious Fraud Office

34. Mr. Jim Cunningham (Coventry, South): How many prosecutions the Serious Fraud Office has instituted over the past 12 months; and how many have been successful. [40757]

The Solicitor-General: The job of the Serious Fraud Office is to investigate as well as to prosecute cases of serious and complex fraud. In the past 12 months prosecutions against 22 defendants were concluded by the SFO; 18 were convicted and four acquitted. The 80 cases that the SFO is currently investigating involve fraud of over £2.5 billion.

Mr. Cunningham: What is the level of fraud in the City and what is my right hon. and learned Friend doing about it?

The Solicitor-General: It is estimated that in the economy as a whole there is about £14 billion of fraud. My hon. Friend is right to bring that to the attention of the House because fraud is a problem not only for the individual who is defrauded but for the economy and our financial services institutions. I work closely with other Departments, as does the SFO with Customs and the Inland Revenue. It is right that we go after white collar crime so that we do not have a situation where the richer people are, the more likely they are to get away with it. In that respect, the SFO is a bit like David facing Goliath, but it does a very good job in making sure that people cannot get away with crime just because they have billions of pounds of the proceeds of crime with which to defend themselves.

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): I am sure that the Solicitor-General will agree that it is crucial for Government Departments to work together to combat fraud, and that co-ordination of Government effort and expertise is essential to bring forward successful prosecutions.

Customs and Excise prosecutors have come recently, or are about to come, under the aegis of the right hon. and learned Lady's Department. What plans are there for Inland Revenue prosecutors?

The Solicitor-General: The hon. Gentleman is right to say that Customs and Excise prosecutors are shortly to be accountable to the Attorney-General. There are several principles at work. It is important to ensure the independence of the prosecutors. It is important also to ensure proper accountability to the House for all prosecutors throughout government. Further, it is important that they all work together.

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There were particular circumstances where it was felt that the independence of Customs and Excise prosecutors would be reinforced if they were to become directly accountable to the Attorney-General. As the hon. Gentleman says, that is about to happen. However, I am not aware that it is suggested that that should be the case for Inland Revenue prosecutors. We work closely with Inland Revenue prosecutors, and I visited the team a few weeks ago.

Mr. Chris Bryant (Rhondda): I welcome everything that my right hon. and learned Friend has been saying.

The director of the Serious Fraud Office has already acknowledged that the office is scraping only the surface of fraud in the United Kingdom. Given that the SFO has had many recent successes, would it not make sense for the office to have responsibility for all fraud prosecutions?

Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that Mr. Ernest Saunders, formerly of Guinness, is helping the national health service with a special research project into miraculous cures for pre-senile dementia?

The Solicitor-General: My hon. Friend makes an important point about the valuable work that is done by the SFO. Given its size, it can undertake only a certain number of investigations and prosecutions. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer is on the Government Front Bench to hear about the importance of the SFO's work and the need to expand it. I am sure that he will take these matters seriously.

It has been suggested in the past that the SFO should take on minor frauds. It is right, however, that it should take on complex and serious frauds. Such cases involve specialist legal and accountancy work that ranges across different jurisdictions. When I was in the SFO yesterday, it was explained to me that sometimes there are different defendants in different countries, with witnesses in different countries. The office has to deal with the proceeds of crime in different countries, and it has to translate its documents into different languages.

We will not allow big, international fraudsters to get away with their activities by crossing jurisdictions. It is important that the SFO's work is recognised and that it has the resources that it needs to do its job.

Crown Prosecution Service

4. Helen Southworth (Warrington, South): What assessment she has made of the recommendation of Lord Justice Auld that the charges against defendants should be decided by the Crown Prosecution Service rather than the police. [40758]

The Solicitor-General: Sir Robin Auld's review of the criminal courts, published in October 2001, proposed that the Crown Prosecution Service, rather than the police, should have responsibility for determining the charge

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against defendants except in minor or routine cases. This is to ensure that the right suspect is brought to court with the right charge and the right evidence.

Helen Southworth: I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for that answer. In her opinion, is it more likely that allegations of domestic violence will proceed to court in cases where the Crown Prosecution Service was involved in the charging?

The Solicitor-General: It is sometimes thought that the police think, "Perhaps we should not put this case forward to the prosecution because it might drop the case. Therefore, there is no point." It might be that it is not clear about which are the best charges or what the best evidence is.

There are five pilot schemes, and we are examining how the prosecution can take forward charges rather than the police. The schemes will show whether by working together at a local level we can have the right charges and a better outcome. In difficult cases, such as domestic violence or where there is an element of racial aggravation, it is important to get the charges right at the outset. There is nothing more demoralising for victims than to see downgraded the charge as laid, or for it to be dropped altogether. The work that has been done in Halifax, for example, shows that the process has been taken forward successfully.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): The Prime Minister said yesterday that crime rates had fallen under the current Government since 1997, but that is simply not the case in my constituency and many others. Much of that failure relates to the manner in which criminal charges are brought against defendants. Does not the Solicitor–General agree that the indictment by the recent inspectorate report on the CPS established the existence of understaffing and weak management—yet another failure on public services by this Government—and, furthermore, that the CPS fails to respond to defence correspondence and to disclose evidence? Did she note in last week's edition of The Sunday Times the remarks of the defence lawyer who said with regard to CPS failures:

In other words, criminals are walking free and the Prime Minister was wrong.

The Solicitor-General: That particular issue concerns a defence lawyer who was trying to drum up business for himself and, more importantly, to plug the book that he had recently published. None the less, the hon. Gentleman made some serious points about the historic understaffing of the CPS, which has had insufficient lawyers and administration staff, and the fact that improvements have been needed. The inspectorate reports show that those improvements are under way. I refer him to the evidence that the Director of Public Prosecutions gave to the Select Committee on Home Affairs last month, which could allow us to have cautious optimism that we will get the independent, fair and effective prosecution system that he and I both want.

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